on 15 May 2009
Anyone who has read the first two volumes of this monumental history will not need much convincing to open up this long awaited third instalment. I can quickly reassure you that Sumption's famed balance of meticulous research, readable prose, and plain good story telling is still very much in evidence.
It is a depressing period of the war for English readers, with the French resurgent under Charles V, De Guesclin, and their strategy of avoiding pitched battles. It is the story of repeated and expensive chevauches failing to find their enemy in the field and yielding little except disgruntled taxpayers and the taste of defeat, all the more bitter for those who could remember Crecy and Poitiers. It is the story of rampaging Gascon routiers, Iberian intrigues, and the rebellions of ordinary townspeople from Essex to Flanders.
One of the main pleasures of this volume is the filling out of characters who usually remain peripheral in more abridged histories of the period, but who were genuinely big players - most notably the various royal uncles of the two young kings, Richard II and Charles VI. Gaunt (who never hides in the pages of history) is of course the dominant character, and his plans to make good his claim to be King of Castille make a wonderful read.
The only word of caution with this book (and, indeed, series) is that it's probably not for the casual reader of history. To call it detailed would be an understatement, so be prepared, as each new campaign dawns, to wade through the accompanying tax receipts before you get to the juicy bits. The 'Men at Arms' chapter towards the end, addressing the society of the combatants more generally, is also a rather unwelcome hiatus, which might have been better broken up and spread amongst the others.
The volumes are becoming progressively longer, and at times verge on being a complete history of the period, making their title 'The Hundred Years War', much like the term itself, a bit disingenuous in suggesting that it's about one event. Make no mistake though, these books are a thoroughly gripping account of a fascinating era in our past, and I would recommend them wholeheartedly to anyone with more than a passing interest.
on 1 June 2009
This is the third in a series by Sumption. The first thing that you notice with all Sumption's books is that his writing style is crisp and flows with ease from one topic to the next. The number of sources he consulted is indeed impressive. This volume is a great asset to anyone's library. As a medieval maritime historian specialising in the transportation of armies I do, however, have several reservations on some of Sumption's comments on this aspect of his book. He still seems to follow the argument that he makes in his earier volumes that the English merchant marine was small in size. This argument has recently been challenged and in my view he seriously underestimates the avaliability of English maritime resources. This can, sometimes, lead to contradictorary suggestions by him in his work. For example, he notes how sophisticated the English were in transporting armies, and how the French failed to freight similar forces to England, but he then goes on to criticise the English administrations failure in maritime affairs. These,however, are trifles when compared to the enormous work that has gone into this book. It is the more impressive because it is also readable and accessible. Great work!
on 14 May 2011
'Divided Houses' is the third volume of Jonathan Sumption's history of the Hundred Years War. It is unlikely to be the last, since the author set out, twenty years ago, to write a history of the entire War, and he has only reached the Revolution of 1399. The fact that the author has now been made a judge of the Supreme Court is unlikely to stop him.
As he told us in the Preface to his first volume, Sumption's objective is to write a grand narrative, based primarily on documentary rather than chronicle sources: he considers the chronicles `episodic, prejudiced, inaccurate and late'. He also aimed to eschew analysis, as well as the scholarly debates which so often sidetrack historians. He appears to have explored all the printed primary sources (together with a good number of the unprinted ones) and to have read all the secondary authorities; and to have pursued his researches in several countries: England, France and Spain at the least.
The author's style is not that of Edward Gibbon: he is too much the modern, workmanlike barrister for that, driving home his case by the patient accumulation of detailed evidence; but he paints a fine picture. Read this book.
on 20 March 2012
Volume 3 of Jonathan Sumption's history covers the(for me) least known section of the Hundred Years War - the period between Edward III and the Black Prince's triumphs - Crecy, Poitiers etc - and Henry V and Agincourt. It was a pretty bleak period for England, as they were politically and militarily outmanoeuvred, and driven from many of their hard won gains. The book covers the battle field, the domestic politics of both countries and diplomatic manouevring. As before, I found his economic analysis particularly interesting - the two kings' relative abilty to raise taxes was as decisive as anything else.
I loved the first two volumes, and this one as well. First, the writing is superbly clear and readable, keeping you turning pages despite the length and complexity. Secondly, the grasp of detail brings events and people to life - this is no dry academic history. Third, Sumption sets out a clear overall narrative that knits the mass of events together, and paints a convincing picture of how England steadily gave ground. (How Sumption manages to combine writing these books with being one of the UK's top lawyers is beyond me).
I sometimes felt that Sumption was enjoying writing so much that he was deliberately slowing down - less seems to happen than in Volumes 1 and 2, and I began to wonder how many Volumes the whole series will run to. Occasionally, you think you have covered every square inch of British occupied France - and a few more maps would help.
But Sumption still manages to keep you interested and reading, despite the level of detail and lack of 'spectaculars'. Such pure quality of writing keeps him at 5 stars.